A New Game: The Clinton Administration on Africa

The Clinton administration has focused American attention on sub-Saharan Africa like no other administration before it. Last December, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright visited Africa. This spring, President Bill Clinton went there as well. Besides being the longest overseas trip of his presidency, it was the most extensive visit to black Africa of any sitting U.S. president. Many private groups are also now paying unprecedented attention to Africa. A new day in U.S.-Africa relations may have already dawned.

The administration’s strategic objectives are clear, according to one White House advisor, who, like most officials who granted interviews here, asked not to be identified by name: “How can we bring Africa into both the global economy and the global political structure as an effective player?” The advisor adds, “Nobody ever asked that before.” [1]

Until this decade, Africa was seen through a Cold War lens. Many African states that once received substantial U.S. aid, such as Zaire, Somalia, Sudan, and Liberia, have since imploded. Each has generated crises to which the United States in one way or another has been compelled to respond.

Tactically, however, the Clinton administration could not be more divided. At the heart of the debate on Africa is a dilemma that, though reminiscent of the Cold War, transcends it. How can the United States protect its national interests and preserve its principles at the same time? Today, the definition of what it means to be democratic involves more than simply being anticommunist; human rights — entirely absent from Africa policy considerations during most of the Cold War — are now integral to the discussion. Moreover, it seems to be no easy matter to define the national interest with respect to Africa.

The discussion over Africa is unprecedented. Concepts like left and right no longer apply. Many former “liberal” allies now oppose each other over how to best advance democracy and economic growth. The Congressional Black Caucus is similarly split, while, in Africa itself, former Marxists and free-marketeers are finding common ground. Back home, some groups enjoy extraordinary influence. They include several newly formed African American-led organizations, such as the National Summit on Africa and the Constituency for Africa, that seek to build bridges between the two continents, even though their own board members fundamentally disagree among themselves over such basic issues as trade legislation. They also include more established humanitarian groups, which, though they too have the ear of the White House, now disagree with each other over the best way to promote human rights in Africa.

The American business community, on the other hand, is united in its view that market capitalism is the key to solving Africa’s problems. As more African countries embrace market principles, U.S. investors see Africa as a promising frontier, one where returns on investments have so far averaged, as President Clinton noted on his trip, an impressive 35 percent. “It’s true,” says David H. Miller, Executive Director of the Corporate Council on Africa. “It’s high risk, but with high return.”

While some human rights groups lobby for unilateral sanctions against the military dictatorship in Nigeria, for example, companies like Mobil firmly oppose them. “Sanctions are just killing us,” says Miller, referring to the unilateral U.S. sanctions recently imposed on Sudan. “Do they achieve our political goals?” He thinks not.

Complicating the scene, different groups have focused their efforts on different regions. American businesses are looking to maintain their trade relations with Nigeria and Sudan, while U.S. human rights groups have homed in recently on the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Governments “are the most malleable when they are the most needy,” explains Holly J. Burkhalter of Physicians for Human Rights: “We’ve got to work where we can make a difference.” She adds that there have been more killings recently in the Congo than in Nigeria. Of course, the backdrop to violence in Congo and elsewhere in Central Africa remains Rwanda’s 1994 genocide — a seminal event that has the entire international community still wringing its hands.

All these groups lobby Susan E. Rice, 33, the Clinton administration’s new assistant secretary of state for Africa. Before moving to Foggy Bottom, Rice oversaw the administration’s Africa policy from the National Security Council (NSC). At her going away party last fall, one of the NSC’s deputy national security advisers, Nancy Soderberg, 40, gave Rice an unexpected gift. It was a Zulu shield and spear. The joke? Rice might need them to fend off resentful career foreign service officers at her new job.

Rice, following a series of internecine battles, some of which she has won, is now the main architect of U.S. policy toward sub-Saharan Africa. By all accounts, she is one of the most capable people in Washington, though she faces a rocky slope. “We have economic interests. But we also have to stand for something,” she says about Africa.

Her most serious challenges at the moment are Congo, Nigeria, and Sudan. The latter is led by a military-backed Islamist regime that has sponsored terrorism against many of its neighbors. Nigeria is led by a military regime that, in addition to being endemically corrupt, has viciously repressed its own people. And Congo is led by a former guerrilla leader who, besides imprisoning political opponents, journalists, and others, is implicated (along with Rwanda’s leadership) in the massacre of thousands of civilians.

Divided Counsel

At issue is whether to engage these regimes in the hope of moving them toward moderation, or to try to isolate them to achieve the same goal. Here Rice and others, including some administration officials, are at odds. Thomas R. Pickering, 67, the State Department’s new under secretary for political affairs and one of the most seasoned and respected diplomats at Foggy Bottom, has pushed for more interaction between Washington and Khartoum. Rice, instead, is ratcheting up pressure on the regime in Sudan. Jesse L. Jackson, 56, President Clinton’s new special envoy for the promotion of democracy in Africa, favors greater engagement with Nigeria. Rice, on the other hand, leans toward isolating the regime in Lagos. The debate within the administration over Congo is far less divisive, as Rice and most other U.S. officials wish to stay engaged. But outside the U.S. government, human rights groups are demanding punitive measures against the Kabila regime.

Of course, the outcome of the Africa policy dialogue will be settled at least as much in Africa as in the United States. Much of the Clinton administration’s new approach toward the continent hinges upon progress being made by Afticans themselves. Rice is optimistic about a new generation of independent, nationalist-minded leaders, like Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who have recently come of age.[2] Other U.S. officials, however, are far less sanguine. “We’ve seen people like them before. There’s nothing new about them,” says one old Africa hand at Foggy Bottom. “What is new is that neither we nor the Soviets put them there.” Indeed it is a brand new game.

A New, Post-Cold War Plan?

Rice, too, is new to the table. She is one of the most controversial people to reach the upper floors of the State Department in a while, though some of the criticism voiced about her privately says more about the institution and its culture than it does about Rice. “Why would I expect a 33-year-old black woman to know how to run a large bureaucracy,” asks one veteran diplomat. Female career foreign service officers of all ages, however, greatly admire the new assistant secretary. “She is prepared to take risks,” says one woman, her senior, who also holds a management position. “And, 80 to 90 percent of the people around the conference table are still white males.”

Rice is nothing like her predecessor, George E. Moose, 54. He is a career diplomat who, prior to taking over the Africa Bureau in 1993, was the diplomat-in-residence at Howard University. “George is from the old school,” says one of his peers. His approach to Africa was a holdover from the Cold War. After the Somalia debacle, which resulted in the deaths of U.S. marines and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region, his main objective was to keep Africa off the Clinton administration’s radar screen. During his tenure at the Africa Bureau, Moose traveled often to Europe, following a pattern that predated even the Cold War: U.S. Africa policy has long been coordinated as much with Western allies as with African leaders. And he much preferred brokering a consensus at the conference table to leading a discussion of the issues.

Not Rice. “It’s great to have strong intellectual leadership in an approach on Africa,” says one female colleague. Rice, a Stanford University alumna, is a former Rhodes Scholar with a Ph.D. from Oxford University. Within the U.S. diplomatic corps, she is the youngest African-American woman ever to rise so high. She is also a brazen political appointee with no patience for bureaucratic sloth. One colleague describes her as “aggressively youthful.” Rice toils daily in what she described in Essence magazine as “an overwhelmingly white-male environment.” Though she has already made enemies at most of the U.S. foreign policy agencies, even her most bitter critics concede that she is “whip-smart.”

Some complain that Rice often makes unrealistic demands upon her staff. “Sometimes we can’t run,” says one mid-level manager. “We have to walk to figure out how to get things done.” Rice herself concedes that she can be impatient. But, she adds, “I’m a straight shooter, and I expect people to be straight with me back.” Even one self-described “old white male” admits that Rice will listen to anyone and consider his or her position. In fact, her tendency “to think out-side the box” is what some career bureaucrats find threatening.

When Rice encounters resistance, she is also prone to bypass the formal chain of command. Though she technically reports to Pickering, Rice has the ear of Secretary of State Albright, who has been a close family friend since Rice was a little girl. Notes one veteran diplomat, “I’ve not seen an assistant secretary with this kind of juice.”

During the first Clinton administration, no one seemed sure what concrete interests the United States still had in Africa. Rice, however, working first from the White House in coordination with National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and then from Foggy Bottom, has identified three interests. The first is that Africa has immediate potential for U.S. investment and perhaps over the long term will become a serious market for U.S. goods. The second is that Africa is rife with transnational threats, namely terrorism, drug trafficking, and other forms of organized crime, that warrant prophylactic U.S. measures. And third, considering the frequency with which the United States has had to respond to recent humanitarian disasters, preemptive steps make sense.

Africa presented the Clinton administration with its first overseas crisis, when, in October 1993, American television viewers witnessed the spectacle of U.S. marines being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Though the intervention in Somalia had been undertaken by the Bush administration, President-elect Clinton, among many others, supported it at the time. But the unexpected loss of American lives paralyzed the new administration. The televised scenes of bloody mayhem also reinforced American stereotypes about Africa’s “age-old tribal wars.” Later on, the writer Robert Kaplan gave intellectual credence to this theme in his article, “The Coming Anarchy,” which appeared in the February 1994 issue of Atlantic magazine.

The United States was disengaged from and apparently uninterested in Africa when, beginning in April 1994, genocide spread in Rwanda like fire in a greasy pan. Though it seemed to come from nowhere, it did not. Tutsi monarchs had dominated Rwanda for centuries until 1959, when, during the transition to independence, Hutu extremists seized power. Exiled Tutsis, after organizing for decades in neighboring Uganda, invaded Rwanda as a guerrilla force in 1990. A power-sharing agreement eventually produced a cease-fire between the Tutsi rebels and the Hutu government, which ended when the 1994 genocide began.

Historians and others still argue over whether the slaughter was ethnically or politically motivated. But none doubt that it was led by Hutu extremists who murdered at least 500,000 Tutsis, along with roughly 50,000 Hutu moderates.[3] The genocide was carried out with unprecedented speed — with machetes as well as automatic rifles, hand grenades, and other small arms — in just 89 days. In Rwanda, a country the size of Maryland with a population of 8 million, over 6,000 victims perished, on average, each day. [4]

At the time, Rice was director of international organizations and peacekeeping at the National Security Council. She wasn’t used to feeling impotent, and the anguish she felt during the genocide remains. “I will do everything in my power as a policymaker to make sure not to have to ever see that again, she recently told the Washington Post. “I don’t know if I’ll succeed, but I’ll go down fighting.” [5]

“The Initiative”

In the months after the genocide, Rice still refused to see Africa as hopeless. Instead, she decided to help Africans help themselves. By then, a limited, regional U.S. policy based on just such a perspective was already being implemented. The irony is that it had originated not with Rice or any other senior policymakers in Washington but with veteran Agency for International Development (AID) specialists like Gayle Smith, 41, working on the African Horn. Known as the Greater Horn of Africa Initiative, it grew out of the wreckage of Somalia. By 1994, AID administrator J. Brian Atwood was its leading advocate in Washington.

The initiative was revolutionary in concept. Instead of merely reacting to crises, the idea was to take concrete, preemptive measures, to work with local governments throughout the region to promote “food security” and “conflict resolution.” Providing food security means setting up the political, legal, and physical infrastructure to ensure safe and reliable delivery of relief supplies. Conflict resolution entails something more ambiguous. It involves promoting dialogue between hostile states and between warring factions, and working closely with like-minded African leaders who are also interested in trying to create a stable environment.

In 1991, two allied nationalist guerrilla groups took over Ethiopia, ending years of civil war; this led, two years later, to the peaceful breakup of the country and the establishment of Eritrea as an independent nation. This gave impetus to the initiative, which is based on the idea of partnership instead of paternalism. Explains Carol Peasiev, AID’s acting assistant administrator for Africa, “We don’t want hegemony. We want harmony.” What this means in practice is that although UD is financing grass-roots empowerment groups in countries like Kenya, in Eritrea it is deferring to the wishes of the leadership not to back groups independent of government control. “We don’t see a need for [this policy] in Eritrea,” she says.

AID is now applying the same principles to other African states, including Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo, which also have new (relatively so in Uganda’s case) leaders. Critics charge that this approach only undermines pluralism and democratic development, but its defenders argue that positive political change can only take root over time. “You need to look at the evolution of democracy in terms of a movie, not still photographs,” says ex-national security advisor Lake, who is now a professor at Georgetown Universlty, “or, in other words, in dynamic and not static terms.”

Rice, who worked closely under Lake at the White House, shares this view. She also supports the Greater Horn of Africa Initiative. In fact, back in 1994 in response to the Rwandan genocide, Rice even built upon its concepts in developing another plan: the African Crisis Response Initiative. The idea, again, was to develop a regional capability to head off future hostilities. The objective, according to Vincent D. Kern II, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, is to help African countries develop a joint “military capability that would be able to rapidly assemble and deploy in order to prevent another descent into anarchy and the needless loss of life.” [6]

Critics, both inside and outside the Clinton administration, charge that neither initiative has made much progress so far. Rice concedes that both plans still have a long way to go. Nonetheless, they represent the aspirations of a new, post-Cold War vision.

To Engage or Pressure Khartoum?

New thinking, however, will not necessarily resolve new dilemmas. Whether to engage or to pressure the regime in Sudan is one. Sudan presented Rice with her first major bureaucratic test, even before she moved from the National Security Council to the State Department. She and a few other political appointees have been pitted against what sometimes seems like everyone else at Foggy Bottom. “Few people anywhere in this building share their approach,” says one career diplomat. Another official describes the wrangling, which began even before Rice came to Foggy Bottom, as a rare contest of “sheer power.”

One of Rice’s main allies is John Prendergast, 35, a Sudan expert at the NSC who has spent extensive time on the ground there behind rebel lines.[7] Both appointees have many Washington critics. “Susan and John are not diplomats,” says one official. “It is good when political appointees challenge conventional wisdom. It is nice, however, when they are informed by institutional expertise.”

At issue is not the nature of Sudan’s Islamist regime, which even Rice’s critics concede has sponsored terrorism. The debate has been over whether to try to cripple the regime by backing front-line states (which are arming Sudanese rebels) as Rice and Prendergast are doing, or to seek to moderate it through diplomacy, as Under Secretary Pickering and others would have preferred.

These others at one time included Barbara K. Bodine, 50, the State Department’s former director of East African affairs, April Glaspie, 56, her successor at the same post (better known for her controversial role as U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait), and Timothy Carney, 50, the former U.S. ambassador to Sudan. All are career diplomats. Like Pickering, they maintained that the threat posed by Sudan’s regime is greatly exaggerated. They also maintained that the regime could be neither effectively undermined nor overthrown, so they encouraged Sudanese opposition groups to try to negotiate a settlement to the country’s 15-year civil war. Pickering and his allies also actively searched for moderates within the Sudanese regime with whom they hoped to build relations.

The rival camps fought a decisive battle last September. Though the United States has maintained relations with the regime in Sudan, in February 1996 the administration closed the embassy in Khartoum for security reasons and moved its staff to Nairobi. The security problems have since abated, but Rice’s camp has nonetheless sought to keep the embassy shut in order to send a strong message of disapproval. Last September, while Rice was on maternity leave, Pickering and his allies made a move. Without White House authorization, Pickering told journalists — through an intermediary — that the administration would soon partly reopen the embassy in Khartoum. “It was an interesting squeeze play,” says one official sympathetic to Pickering. Within a week, however, Prendergast mustered the clout to get the announcement overruled. “Albright called Pickering and told him to call the reporters back,” says another senior official. “He was left with egg all over his face.”

In view of this skirmish, it is ironic that the impetus for a more hard-line approach toward Sudan came from neither Rice nor her allies but from Africans, in particular from Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki and the leaders of Sudan’s other front-line states. For years, Sudan’s Islamist regime has supported such rebel groups as Eritrea’s Islamic jihad, whose weapons of choice are anti-tank mines, with which they have blown up several packed civilian buses. Similarly, Sudan has backed the fanatical Christian Lord’s Resistance Army, which conducts a campaign of terror in northern Uganda against civilians and regularly press-gangs adolescent children. Sudan has also backed rebel groups in Ethiopia, and was behind the 1995 attempt on the life of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak during his visit to Addis Ababa.[8]

The National Islamic Front, led by Gen. Omar Bashir, seized power in Sudan in 1989. Even though only 70 percent of Sudan’s population is (Sunni) Muslim, and although the Muslims are concentrated mainly in the northern part of the country, the regime imposed Sharia (Muslim law) nationwide. Its closest foreign allies are those erstwhile adversaries, Iran and Iraq. Politically isolated in Africa, the Bashir regime has sought to expand the reach of Islamist forces in the region between the Sahara and the Horn. It has also allowed such groups as Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front and the Palestinian-based Hamas, as well as Islamist veterans of the war in Afghanistan, to train on its soil.

The United States added Sudan to its list of nations that support terrorism in 1993, making the country ineligible for any U.S. aid. In 1996, the U.N. Security Council imposed travel restrictions against Sudanese diplomats over Sudan’s failure to extradite suspects wanted for the attempt on President Mubarak’s life. Last year, the Clinton administration promised the front-line states of Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea $20 million in nonlethal military aid, including uniforms and communications equipment — the largest U.S. military aid package to Africa since the Cold War. Last October, the Clinton administration expanded economic sanctions against Sudan during peace negotiations between the regime and opposition groups. Predictably, the talks failed.

Now the Clinton administration is upping the pressure on Khartoum. In April, it sent an interagency team to Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to explore more “humanitarian, development, political, diplomatic, military and intelligence options” against Sudan, says one high-level participant. Though administration officials say they do not expect Sudanese opposition forces to defeat the government by means of force alone, they hope that, with sufficient external support, the opposition could cripple the regime enough to force it either to change or fall.

Is Nigeria’s Abacha Acceptable?

Nigeria is another source of intra-administration tension. As President Clinton adrnitted during his recent trip to Africa: “We’ve had some fairly heated debate [over Nigeria] among ourselves.” At issue is how to deal with Gen. Sani Abacha, who seized power in 1993. Now, after harassing, imprisoning, and executing members of the opposition, Abacha has scheduled elections for August 1, with himself running for president unopposed.

In March, shortly before President Clinton left Washington for Africa, Assistant Secretary Rice, in a speech at the Brookings Institution, stated what she thought was the administration’s policy. “Let me state clearly and unequivocally that an electoral victory by any military candidate in the forthcoming presidential election in Nigeria would be unacceptable,” she said. “Nigerians need and deserve a real transition to democracy and civilian rule, not another military regime dressed up in civilian clothes.” Rice also called Abacha’s regime “one of the worst abusers of human rights on the continent,” saying that it would be a “source of grave concern” if he did not hand over power to civilian rule.

However, at a joint news conference in Cape Town with South African president Nelson Mandela, President Clinton said something entirely different: “If [Abacha] stands for election, we hope he will stand as a civilian.” Administration officials, including Joseph Wilson, 49, the senior national security advisor for Africa, later tried to “spin” the controversy, suggesting that the two statements meant the same thing. But the fact is that Clinton gave Abacha “the green light to run as a civilian,” conceded a State Department official. This time Rice had egg on her face.

Who got to Clinton? Many people, it seems. One may have been Gilbert Chagouty, a Lebanese national whose family has lived in Nigeria for decades. Chagoury has extensive business interests in Nigeria and is close to General Abacha. He also has White House connections. According to The Washington Post, he was among 250 top Democratic National Committee donors who attended a dinner with President Clinton in 1996. Though as a foreigner he is prohibited by law from donating money directly to the Democratic Party, Chagoury, a few months before the dinner, had donated $460,000 to Vote Now 96, a nonprofit voter registration group that has come under scrutiny from Congressional investigators over its alleged connections to the Democratic Party.[9]

Of course, a host of other individuals and companies with market interests in Nigeria have also long lobbied the administration not to impose sanctions. One of their chief advocates is Jesse Jackson, who, though he has no government office and still works out of the private organization he founded, the National Rainbow Coalition, serves President Clinton as a special envoy. One White House aide who went along on Clinton’s trip to Africa says that Rice and Jackson exchanged heated words on Air Force One and elsewhere. Rice denies it. (Jackson did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.) Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who were also on board, entered into the discussion. One participant says the talks were “vibrant.”

Indeed, principles and interests clash in Nigeria. The country is second only to South Africa in sub-Saharan Africa as a site of U.S. direct foreign investment, with $978 million flowing into Nigeria last year. U.S. exports to Nigeria in 1997 totaled $814 million — again more than to any other country in sub-Saharan Africa except South Africa. And Nigeria surpasses all African countries as a source of U.S. imports. Last year, it exported oil, gas, and other commodities worth $6.3 billion to the United States.[10] It is the fifth largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States, even though overall it has only about 4.1 percent of the total U.S. market. (Mobil and Chevron are the main U.S. buyers.)

At the same time, Nigeria is among Africa’s most retrograde countries. The private group, Transparency International, lists it as Africa’s most corrupt nation. Its infrastructure has collapsed, and criminal syndicates are flourishing. The Abacha regime has neglected such basic needs as clean drinking water and electricity. Moreover, the regime has been linked to thousands of fraudulent scams that have targeted small businesses in the United States, and the country has become a major transshipment point for heroin and other illegal drugs that end up in Europe and the United States.

Abacha’s human rights record is deplorable. He has killed hundreds of political opponents and imprisoned thousands more, including many members of other ethnic groups. In 1995, he ordered the execution by hanging of eight activists of the Ogoni people in southeastern Nigeria, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, the award-winning writer, who had accused the government and oil companies together of destroying their homeland. More recently, Abacha has even attacked former allies. In April 1998, a military court sentenced six ex-military officers, including Abacha’s former right-hand man, Gen. Oladipyo Diya, to death by firing squad for allegedly plotting a coup.

“He is making a time bomb,” says Adotei Akwei of Amnesty International, who complains that Rice and other U.S. officials haven’t pressured Abacha enough. “It is almost as if they perceive of Nigeria as too big a challenge,” he adds. “And they may have already undercut themselves.”

Indeed, the young assistant secretary may have painted herself into a corner. Abacha, shortly after President Clinton’s trip, manipulated Nigeria’s electoral process to ensure that all five of its legally registered parties would nominate him as their sole candidate for president. Now no one can legitimately argue that the process is fair. That leaves Rice with no easy step. Human rights groups have long pressed the administration to impose an embargo against Nigerian oil exports. Though a unilateral embargo might provide leverage in the short term, over time Nigeria would likely find new buyers elsewhere. “That would only hurt us,” says the Corporate Council on Africa’s David Miller.

Another option would be to try to forge a multilateral oil embargo. While divisions within the European Community would likely prohibit this, an embargo involving the United States and the British-led Commonwealth nations seems more feasible, especially with the new Labour government in London. Some Clinton administration officials have considered this step. But few people inside or outside the administration are convinced (or worried) that they will follow through. Following the news that Abacha would be Nigeria’s only presidential candidate, Peter Bartlett, senior vice president at the Banque Nationale de Paris in London, told Reuters: “It doesn’t look like it’s good news for democracy, but I don’t think it will have much effect on the Nigerian market.”

Stopping Central Africa’s Cycle of Violence

The Clinton administration is far less divided over Congo. Most officials have sought to remain engaged with its new leader, Laurent Kabila, much to the dismay of some private human rights organizations, which seek to ostracize him for his continuing abuses. Other groups that might be expected to voice an opinion in the matter have had little to say. The State Department’s Human Rights Bureau, though it affects policy indirectly through its annual country reports, has had little influence on the discussion. (It rarely does in general.) Similarly, U.S. business groups have avoided this quarrel. Though the United States imported $282 million worth of oil, minerals, and other goods from Congo last year, American firms have few direct foreign investments in the country.

Foreign observers everywhere are watching to see how the situation in Congo develops. The revolt that erupted in November 1996 in what was then called Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) caught everyone off guard. The strength of the rebellion and the speed — seven months — with which it led to power took virtually all observers, including the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, by surprise. “We were caught with our pants down,” says one high-ranking State Department official. A Defense Department official says that prior to the revolt the CIA had only reported that “some trouble was brewing” in eastern Zaire and that “something was likely to happen” — no more than what was already being reported by humanitarian groups at the time.[11]

U.S. officials, contrary to claims by France and others, were also initially unaware of the depth of direct military involvement by Rwanda, Uganda, Eritrea, and other states in providing joint training arms, and funds for the effort. Though Rwanda’s leader, Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, had previously intimated to U.S. officials that he and others might launch a preemptive strike against Hutu genocidaires then holding other Hutu refugees hostage in eastern Zaire, few took him seriously at the time. “We under-estimated them,” says one old Africa hand. Independent military action on that scale by Africans is a phenomenon that has emerged only since the Cold War, even though the nationalism that has accompanied it may seem familiar.

A Thug for Decades

Laurent Kabila has wrapped himself in his flag, and presents himself as one of Africa’s promising new leaders. In fact, he’s been a thug for decades. Though he’s been involved in leftist guerrilla movements since the early 1960s, he never attracted any significant following. “Kabila has not set foot since time immemorial at the front,” wrote the Cuban Revolutionary, Che Guevara, in his Zaire diaries in 1965. “He allows the day to go by without worrying about anything other than political infighting and is too addicted to drink and women.”[12] Congo’s new leader has also been involved in ivory, diamond, and gold smuggling.

Few people had even heard of Kabila before the 1996 rebellion. Among those who had, including Foggy Bottom’s old Africa hands, many questioned both his capability and his motives. Other officials, including Rice, saw him as one of Africa’s promising new leaders. So did the secretary of state. During her December 1997 trip to Africa, Albright held a joint press conference with him in Kinshasa. But Kabila embarrassed her by railing against a local journalist who dared to ask about an imprisoned opposition leader.

It was only one warning post on a treacherous road. The initial optimism that accompanied the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire’s longtime despot, whose reign gave rise to the term “predatory regime,” has since given way to melancholy and fear. Kabila has banned independent human rights groups, imprisoned Journalists, sent political opponents into internal exile, and executed others, including military officers suspected of mutiny. Voices from all quarters say that the Kabila regime is corrupt. Even his former allies in Rwanda, Uganda, and Eritrea have begun asking whether they should have recruited another Zairian to lead the operations in eastern Zaire.

Their collective objective in organizing rebel forces in this area was to rid it of the genocidaires who had regrouped there after carrying out Rwanda’s 1994 slaughter. In the beginning, few thought that the effort might eventually propel the Zairian rebel forces to national power. But from the start, Rwanda played a major role in directing the rebels and participated in the carnage that followed. Though the actual number of casualties is unknown, thousands were massacred in the months leading up to August 1997. Though Congolese and Rwandan officials have both claimed that most of those who perished were armed genocidaires who died fighting, witnesses and other evidence clearly suggest that among the dead were thousands of unarmed civilians, including women and children. And Kabila’s forces as well as Rwandan military officers are implicated in these attacks.[13]

Nevertheless, the Clinton administration is providing economic and military aid, including U.S. Army Special Forces trainers, to the Rwandan government and economic aid to Congo. Rice argues that this support is essential to ensure stability in the long term. Alison DesForges of Human Rights Watch is among those who oppose it. “Kabila was established [in power] at the enormous cost of noncombatant lives,” she says. Holly Burkhalter of Physicians for Human Rights agrees, “If you give them aid now, then you squander your leverage.”

Not everyone in the humanitarian community has been against providing him with aid. An unprecedented split between human rights groups and development organizations has emerged. “We care about human rights,” says Justin Forsyth of Oxfam International. “But we think you need to engage Kabila [and others] first in order to gain leverage.” He points out that the entire international community lost credibility in the region for its collective failure in 1994 to help stop Rwanda’s genocide. Afterward, many of the same groups — including his own, he adds — were responsible for supporting refugee camps that harbored genocidaires.

Rice maintains that the genocidaires still represent a serious threat. They are once again active inside Rwanda, where they have been carrying out attacks, including against civilian witnesses to the genocide. Genocidaires murdered 231 people the day before Secretary Albright and Assistant Secretary Rice arrived in Kigali last December. Rice was so outraged by the attack that she asked the Defense Department to consider ways, besides providing training, to help Rwanda fight back. Pentagon officials say Rice was even considering U.S. military intervention; Rice denies it. She remains determined, however, to back the government in Kigali against the genocidaires. Their ongoing attacks are “something about which we all need to be concerned,” she says.

At the same time, Rwanda and Congo are each still committing their own abuses. This April, Rwanda executed 22 alleged genocidaires by firing squad after hurried trials in which some of the accused had only hours to prepare a defense. That same month U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan finally withdrew a U.N. team from Congo that had been sent to investigate the 1997 killings in the eastern part of the country. After agreeing last year to allow the team to operate, Kabila had harassed investigators and intimidated witnesses, and the investigation went nowhere.

How to Stay in the Game?

Whether Assistant Secretary Rice succeeds in setting lasting parameters for U.S. Africa policy will depend upon effective action by players on both sides of the Atlantic. She brings vitality to the job at a time when Africa is undergoing dynamic change. Her active approach to problems resembles that of Africa’s new generation of leaders. But Rice is also young enough to make mistakes. “I’m not sure she knows when to compromise,” says one fan who is also a friend.

Having overcome her rivals, Rice now plays the administration’s Africa hand. Of course, says one official, if she plays the wrong cards, “we are going to wind up dealing ourselves out of the game.”


1. All quotations are from interviews conducted by the author in April and May 1998. Back
2. I am relatively sympathetic toward these leaders. See Dan Connell and Frank Smyth, “Africa’s New Bloc,” Foreign Affairs 77 (March/April 1998), pp. 80-94. Back
3. The historian Alison DesForges of Human Rights Watch/Africa uses these figures. The histo- rian Gerard Prunier and the New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch use the figure of 800,000 killed. See Gerard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide, 2d ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), and Philip Gourevitch, “The Genocide Fax,” New Yorker, May 11, 1998. Back
4. Frank Smyth, Arming Rwanda (New York: Human Rights Watch/Arms Project, January 1994). Back
5. Lonnae O’Neal Parker, “She’s on Top of the World,” Washington Post, March 30,1998. Back
6. Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Africa of the Committee on International Relations, October 1, 1997. Back
7. See John Prendergast, The Outcryfor Peace in the Sudan (Washington, D.C.: Centre for the Strategic Initiatives of Women, October 1996). Back
8. See Ted Dagne and Donald Deng, Sudan: Civil War, Terrorism, and U.S. Relations (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, April 3, 1997). Back
9. Charles R. Babcock and Susan Schmidt, “Voters Group Donor Got DNC Perk,” Washington Post, November 22, 1997. Back
10. G. Feldman, U.S.-African Trade Profile (Washington, D.C.: Office of Africa, International Trade Administration, U. S. Department of Commerce, March 1998). Back
11. See Sheldon Yett, Masisi, Down the Road from Goma: Ethnic Cleansing and Displacement in Eastern Zaire (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Committee for Refugees, June 1996). Back
12. Jorge G. Castaneda, “How Che Saw Kabila,” Newsweek, April 21, 1997. Back
13. Scott Campbell, What Kabila Is Hiding (New York: Human Rights Watch/Africa, October 1997). “